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Your homework in black and white

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Mark Kermode | 18:32 UK time, Friday, 12 March 2010

Is Avatar secretly a monochrome silent movie (preferably viewed in two dimensions)? Were the greatest lessons of cinema learned and mastered even before the advent of sound? Do these rules apply to contemporary cinema and does anyone pay any attention anyway? Well, you all do it seems because yet again the Kermode Uncut commentating community is raising the level of online movie debate...

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Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Off topic, but just bought your book and im already quite a way in. Its already a fun read and an intresting one as well, although getting Her maj might be a bit too far off for now.
    Secondly, Avata wouldnt work as a silent film for one BIG reason. Even if you remove the dialouge you still remove the oscar-nommed sound.And SF is one of the things which makes Avatar speacial.
    One movie that could be a good silent film though- The Coen brothers underated comedy Burn after reading.

  • Comment number 2.

    Sound is a massive part of film.

    Embrace sound/score and the absence of sound at times of a film which is just as effective.

    Dr Kermode imagine The Exorcist without Tubular Bells, or 2001 without that score.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sound is arguably a gimmick. It made storytelling easier but the actual craft of visual film-making was unaltered. Think how many movies today use sound to paper over the cracks in the film-making - Exposition, exposition, explosion, exposition, barely comprehensible fist fight, exposition etc.

  • Comment number 4.

    With all the Oscar hype at the moment I was wondering what other film lovers consider trully awful films, yet kinda entertaining.

    It could make a nice change from talking about decent films.

    My ones are (and this is only a few)

    Granny
    Camp Blood
    Camp Blood 2
    Nursie
    Skinned Alive
    Sleepy Hillock Massacre
    Insomneoid
    The Nostril Picker
    Flesh eating mothers
    Killer Klowns from outer space
    Billy the Kid.

    to name but a few.

    Great for a laugh with your mates though..

    ps. District 9 deserved more from the Academy (who are putting a stop to a replica Hollywood Sign in Wellington bit sad really.)

    Sound made Hee-Haw diiference to that list S**T anyway

  • Comment number 5.

    I think in the case of Avatar, it's not so much the lack of sound that would change the experience, but the lack of colour. Cameron said he'd create a grand new world and that's one part of the film that he succeeded with - the greens and blues of the film were so beautiful in places and the lighting was great. Take that away and even in 3D Avatar loses a lot of its appeal.

    I think silent cinema is just as powerful as sound, in some cases more so. Films certainly had a stronger visual identity back in the silent era - the grand design of Metropolis, the finale of Buster Keaton's The General, the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, the scene between Frankenstein and the little girl at the edge of the water in the 1931 James Whale classic come to mind. But then, as has already been proven, sound can do so, so much for a film, particularly in the horror movie and your beloved The Exorcist. It's a no win argument, as strong cases can be made for either side.

    I'd like to see more silent features made today though...some films are still released in black and white (and some that aren't, should be - see the Special Edition copy of Frank Darabont's The Mist) - why not make a silent one once in a while? I, for one, would pay to see that in the era of 3D. It would make a very welcome change.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'd like to correct my post - i've just been told Frankenstein isn't a silent film (I feel, of course, very stupid). Well, the one time I saw it I watched it silent (don't ask me how, obviously accidentally) and it was just as powerful. Just goes to show I suppose...

  • Comment number 7.

    The Exorcist isn't just the only exception, horror as a genre is so reliant on the sound effects and design which are a major part in making a horror movie effective and terrifying. You also mention the design of David Lynch films or more recently There Will Be Blood in which the sound, not just the music, is a crucial element to the storytelling and the unnerving tone it creates. Oh and if Mike Figgis is supposed to be trusted about the whole sound is unnecessary as long as you can tell a great story, why didn't he start doing it a long time ago?

  • Comment number 8.

    Animation and silent film really do have a lot in common. I did my undergrad dissertation on anthropomorphism in Wall-E and drew a lot of comparisons with the silent clowns. I guess that's why I love Chaplin, Keaton, and Pixar in equal measure.

  • Comment number 9.

    Interesting topic as always. The atmosphere of a live symphonic accompanyment to a classic film has to be experienced. Especially when the film is presented in the correct ratio and speed.
    Personally, I feel that music is often the 'heartbeat' of a movie. I've been most recently impressed with the score put together by Robbie Robertson for SHUTTER ISLAND. Ominous and terrifying. Similar in style to Elmer Bernstein's adaptation of the Bernard Herrmann score for CAPE FEAR.

  • Comment number 10.

    Rather than silent film versions of talky pictures how about just removing the dialogue. Avatar minus dialogue but still with it's great sound mix.
    Actually take out the score too as that was nothing special. Just the visuals with the sound effects track.

    That would have to be the new "Ultimate Trip"

  • Comment number 11.

    Sound is a gimmick? If it's a good, well written character driven story then surely you don't need pictures to convey it?

    Take any good story and ask yourself 'could this work as a radio play'.

    Radio drama demonstrates that it's the pictures that are the gimmick; voices convey emotions as well as or better than facial expressions, music can help set mood and our imaginations provide the pictures.

    In truth each medium has its strengths. Radio drama, silent movies, music - but hey put them together and they add to, not detract from, each other.

    Story telling is as old as humanity, cave paintings depicted hunts, shamanistic rituals probably involved stories (in speech or song) of great hunters set to ritual music. Each could work on their own, put them together and they turn a mere story into great drama.

  • Comment number 12.

    i still have yet to see avatar, but the score, or at least the snippet from the tv spot, is one of the main things that put me off watching it. it just sounded like generic big movie music so i'd be happy to watch it with a live band. however, the exorcist is NOT the exception that proves the rule, you've said before that the soundtrack for films, especially horror films, is often more important than the visuals. i know at latitude festival a couple of years back they screen eraserhead with music provided by the guillemots, i missed it but i'm curious as to how well it would have worked, since the sound on eraserhead is so wonderful anyway, i can't see it improving it.

  • Comment number 13.

    that said, i'd really like to see troll 2 with a live band.

  • Comment number 14.

    Mark, when you come to go to Cannes this year, can you do your Cannes Report as a series of silent films? That would be amazing :)

  • Comment number 15.

    The eagle has landed - nice one Dr. K!

    Yes let's get that Dodge Brothers soundtrack over a 2D Avatar and see if it we can get it all done and dusted before the Avatar Special Edition DVD -

    That would be cooooool!

  • Comment number 16.

    I think I heard (or read) the great Walter Murch say something like "The human brain can only process three and-a-half sounds at once."

    With that in mind so many movies today have a sound mix that is just sonic wallpaper, due to having hundreds of tracks of nonsense going on at once.

    At best it's an indecipherable wall of indistinct sound. At worse (in the case of Michael Bay and .Co) it's a brain-scrambling, migrane-inducing assault.

  • Comment number 17.

    Avatar without color?Avatar without sound?Dodge Brothers soundtrack over a 2D avatar?are we living in the same world?What are you talking about?This is the worst post by the good doctor by far,followed by really weird comments.
    I would rather prefer a conversation about actual movies existing in the real world.

  • Comment number 18.

    Here's some homework: write to the BBC to ask for proper Oscars coverage instead of allowing Sky the exclusive rights for another heaven-knows how many years. It's 'only' been 6 years since the Oscars were last on the BBC.....

  • Comment number 19.

    I actually wrote this response to one of your previous posts, but as nobody will probably read it there now, I'll re-post it here:

    "I love silent films! I am in the (admittedly) small minority who feel that the wheels started falling off after the 'Jazz Singer' arrived.

    The sheer emotion that can be expressed in a face and body is in many ways much more human and much more universal than simple talk. And I speak as a big Eric Rohmer fan (R.I.P) - whose films are often accused of having too much dialogue. It's a related, but in many ways quite a different art form. It certainly is much more radically different than the introduction of 3D.

    I dare anyone not to watch 'Sunrise' by Murnau and not understand why silent film is such an amazing art form. Ironically Blu-ray has enabled many of us without film and projectors to now see silent films much more how they were intended to be seen. I've recently managed to get hold of 'The General' from the States and can't wait to see it restored, in high definition, warts and all.

    The movement starts here. Dr. K. leading us back to the early 20th century.."

    And I'll also add, that asking whether the Exorcist would be improved by taking away the sound is rather missing the point. As I mentioned in my post, silent cinema and 'talkies' are related but different art forms.

    Removing dialogue from a talkie would be like adding dialogue to a great silent film like Sunrise. A director or an artist works within the strengths and constraints of their chosen medium. Simply adding and removing material doesn't improve it just as much as simply adding more paint or a different colour of paint does to a painting.

    A good analogy would be the difference between colour and black and white photography. Can removing colour from a photo make it better? Sometimes it can. Does it always make it better? No, not always. The reverse is true, sometimes showing colour can bring life to a photo while having it in black and white can leave it dull and lifeless.

    It all very much depends what the photographer wants to show and which aspects he or she is focusing on. Photographers often know which they are going to shoot in before they start, and are well aware of what strengths and constraints the medium has before they begin to create.

    So to answer the question, the Exorcist wouldn't be improved by removing the sound, it probably wouldn't exist at all. Or at least not in the form that Mark Kermode loves.

  • Comment number 20.

    What I always found fascinating with the medium of film to begin with is the manipulation of physical mass.
    In this sense silent cinema is something of the ne plus ultra in cinematic experience due to the fact that the entire narrative or thematic arc depends on the film's ability to convey through images.
    This is entirely a personal assessment, and by saying that I do not intend to render "Talkies" an inferior format - because it clearly isn't.
    Indeed, without the audial accompaniment the works of filmmakers such as Lynch and Wenders would've suffered greatly as so much of their cinematic sensibilities are woven into the sound (Lynch) and linguistics (Wenders).

    But I do believe that mute storytelling has an edge in the lyrical quality of its visual presentation.
    Take Kim Ki-duk's "3-Iron" for example; a film whose two protagonists-in-love are virtually mute throughout the entire affair.
    The finality of their affection is so obvious to the audience that words would be an excess.

  • Comment number 21.

    We all know Sonhouse clapping his hands singing ' dont you mind people grinnin in your face ' on a 1 track reel to reel recorder was one of the greatest songs ever written, just like Skip James and Leadbelly can make you cry when you listen to them on vinyl. George Melies 'A trip to the moon' is a film that leaves me stunned, theres something about that film that resonates with the soul. Technology will never attain that, in fact the further we move away from the truth the less chance we will ever have of recapturing it. The good doctor is right about silent films with sound accompaniment, in the same way he's right about trends like 3d.

  • Comment number 22.

    It was stated above that horror doesn't work well without sound.

    All I can say to that is "Nosferatu"

  • Comment number 23.

    I always thought that West Side Story had as much going for it in its visuals as it did in its sound. No small achievement for a musical.

  • Comment number 24.

    Can't imagine The Exorcist without Reagan's grimy, foul-mouthed cockney voice, which has to be one of the most unsettling marriages of image and sound in cinema.

  • Comment number 25.

    I suppose you can look at the order of things as,

    1. Static picture, paintings etc.
    2. Moving pictures.
    3. Moving pictures and sound.
    4. 3D...

    It's the 3D that does not really fit in. It's not adding a fundamental, irreducible, "sense". I would consider "full immersion" to be the real revolution. Something along the lines of Strange Days (James Cameron again!)

    After all "3D" is an evolutionary trick used primarily for hunting... Just like stereo sound..

  • Comment number 26.

    A chat with my mother yesterday jogged my memory over what Avatar reminded me of. "Fantastic Planet", "La Planete Sauvage". Blue giants and fantastic botany. Has Cameron mentioned inspiration from this classic animation?

    As I am sure you know, the correct translation in modern English is "The exception tests the rule".

  • Comment number 27.

    Movies with minamalist sound I think work very well - the use of ambient sound instead of overpowering music.

    The old BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas / Omnibus "O Whistle and I'll come to you" used only dialouge and ambient sound and was bloody terryfying. I find the scariest and most atmospheric thriller / horror films have unobstrusive dialouge and music as a rule, but I may be wrong.
    By the way, Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Les Diaboliques" is one of the best films ever made!

  • Comment number 28.

    Kinda shoe-horning this as it's a bit off topic
    but seeing as though the power of vintage horror is being debated...

    I was sure that the "Nymphos!" scene that the good doctor mentioned from Shock Corridor was from another Samuel Fuller film, The Naked Kiss. I would have bet good money on this, but now I have an excuse to revisit both movies to check.

    Either way, hearing "Nymphos" (delivered with the same mix of horror and delight as had stuck in my head from all those years back) while listening to the podcast this week made me laugh so much i nearly fell off my bike

  • Comment number 29.

    Dear Dr K,
    Before I watched this post I had never heard of Louise Brooks or, of course, any of her movies. On a whim I did a little google research, and the next thing I know - wow, I am completely intrigued and captivated by this extraordinary, dazzling, and flawed actress and person and these significant films, espacially Lulu, and her often tragic but ultimately redemptive story.
    Would a brief perspective itself be worthy of a blog - but could anyone do justice to "Brooksie" and her extraordinary films in 5 minutes?
    David

  • Comment number 30.

    Pandora's Box, I mean, of course

 

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